Operation Odessa: Miami and the Russian Mob

Special to Gangsters Inc.
By Ron Chepesiuk

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian criminal groups became active in many major European countries, extending their reach around the world to cities with growing communities of Russian émigrés. In the U.S. they established bases in at least 17 U.S. cities, most notably New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver and Miami.

In the 1970s the Miami Beach Police Department began noticing that a number of local Russian emigre cab drivers were committing an inordinate number of crimes, although they did not fit the profile of “gangster.” They were clean cut and appeared to be chasing the American Dream. But, as the authorities learned, many of them were involved in such activities as gambling, narcotics, prostitution and extortion. During the 1980s, their organization and activities appeared to be getting more sophisticated. In 1986 South Florida law enforcement uncovered its first big Russian Mafia-related crime involving a bogus gasoline wholesale business suspected of stealing gas taxes in South Florida. In a few years, Russian gangsters would be charged with masterminding an ingenious scam, using a string of phantom petroleum companies to avoid Federal and state excise taxes on millions of dollars worth of gasoline and diesel fuel trucked out of Port Everglades and other locales in South Florida

By the early 1990s some Federal law enforcement officials began sounding the alarm bells, warning that the influx of dangerous Russian criminals posed a serious threat to the country. Initially, however, U.S. law enforcement was slow to react. In 1990 Washington Post columnist James Rosenthal concluded: “ Since the U.S. Justice Department does not consider the Russian Mob to be organized crime, it doesn’t treat it with the seriousness that it reserves for more VIP criminals.” In conducting a strategic assessment of Russian organized crime in 1991, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reportedly relied not on its own official investigations but on information supplied by the New York Times.

Some law enforcement officials in Miami, though, were concerned. In the early 1990s, DEA agent Bill Handoga got together with Ed Riley, a DEA intelligence analyst, and FBI agent Robert Levinson to discuss what they knew about Russian organized crime in the city. The three law enforcement officers were ahead of the curve. They realized that the Russian Mob was becoming more active not just in New York City but in Miami as well and that their agencies should be doing something about it. “I said that it would be great to investigate the Russian Mob, but you know that if we ask our bosses to support a Russian crime task force, they are going to say no,’” Handoga recalled. “ So we decided to organize our own unofficial ad hoc task force.”

The trio recruited colleagues in other law enforcement agencies operating in Miami interested in participating in the task force. Colleagues joined from included U.S. Customs, Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Metro Dade Police Department, the INS, and the FBI. The members dubbed their task force “Operation Odessa” after the major port city in the Republic of the Ukraine. “We kept a low profile but the group got bigger and bigger,” Handoga recalled.

Operation Odessa had no official standing and no budget, but its members met every Thursday in a room at the lab building in the Kroger Center on Northwest 53rd Street where the DEA office was located. FBI agent Levinson had some money for informants, so the group began using them pick up information, especially about how important Russian mobsters were becoming in Miami

“The Russian mobsters who began coming to Miami in the early 1990s had acquired hundreds of millions of dollars that they looted during the privatization of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union,” Handoga explained. “They loved to come to Miami. It was sun, sand, sex and a nice change from Moscow and Brighton Beach.” Some Russians stayed and formed a fairly large émigré community that had its own bars, delicatessens and music shops. They bought pricey condos on the beach and gated mansions on Fisher Island. Many were ex-military or ex-KGB officials. The balmy tropical paradise became their ideal location, a base for making criminal deals and for laundering money that came largely from the traffic in South American cocaine.

In Miami Beach, it became common to see many young Russian men checking into luxury hotels and carrying satellite phones, some of them accompanied by what appeared to be bodyguards. They wore tracksuits and sported homemade tattoos that reflected their prison experience. Operation Odessa investigators figured they were probably low-level Russian hoodlums who were perhaps being rewarded with an all-expense paid vacation for successfully completing some criminal deed, perhaps for whacking a competitor.

The Gambino crime family had been decimated by years of investigation and prosecution. Operation Odessa learned that the Russian Mafia, through its intelligence, muscle and nerve, had replaced the Gambinos as one of the top crime syndicates in South Florida. There were no gangland killings or violent confrontations, though. It happened with barely a whimper. Miami was still an open city for mobsters.

9941699054?profile=RESIZE_180x180One of the Soviet émigrés who eventually came to Miami was Ludwig Fainberg (right), a charismatic and loquacious Ukrainian Jew who owned a strip club named Porky’s. The strip club had become an object of Operation Odessa’s attention after it became obvious that it was a destination for important visiting Russian mobsters doing business in Miami. Porky’s got its name from a raunchy low budget film shot in South Florida in 1982. Law enforcement had it own name for the Russian mob watering hole: “Redfellas South.”

Burly and 6’ 1” in height, Fainberg was known as “Tarzan” because of his wild hair and muscular physique. The flamboyant Ukrainian made no effort to keep a low profile. He was known to tool around town in a Jeep and on a Harley motorcycle and lived in a $200,000 waterfront condo at Mystic Point in North Dade County. Tarzan was a sharp operator, a wheeler-dealer, who conversed easily in three languages, Russian, English and Hebrew.

“He was a ‘go to guy,’ a catalyst, and very talented as far as knowing how to work with other people,” said Brent Eaton, a retired DEA agent who was a key investigator on the Operation Odessa team. “The Russian mobsters who came to Miami would look him up and Tarzan would hook them up with whatever they needed—drugs, girls and/or contacts. He also helped them with their investments and money laundering.”

After arriving in Miami in the early 1990s, Tarzan had purchased Porky’s with the help of 71-year old Bill Seidle, the owner of a large Nissan dealership in Miami. According to Robert Friedman in his book Red Mafiya, Seidle said Tarzan “was a boisterous big mouth Yiddel but was close to my family, who loved Tarzan.” Seidle staked Tarzan to Porky’s, although he claimed he only collected rent from the club and denied receiving any club profits.

Law enforcement was having a tough time infiltrating Tarzan’s world, but it got a break when Grecia aka “Cannibal” Roizes was arrested for heroin trafficking in 1992. Tarzan had been friends with Roizes in Israel. Roizes owned a furniture wholesale business that had branches in Coney Island, New York, as well as in Italy and Russia. The business was actually fronting a heroin trafficking ring involving the Russian Mafia and the Genovese and Gambino crime families. Roizes was one mean character and the nickname of “Cannibal” that his friends and associates gave him seemed particularly well suited. Cannibal acquired the name after biting the tip of a New York Police Department (NYPD) detective’s nose.

Cannibal also spent three years in prison for hitting a man so hard in the stomach that his intestines came out of his recent medical incision. According to law enforcement sources, Tarzan helped Cannibals gang with extortion and torch jobs—that is, arson. “People who didn’t want to buy furniture from my boss and his warehouse we made them buy,” Tarzan told A & E (Arts and Entertainment) Television Network. “I actually enjoyed it.” Cannibal faced a long stretch in jail, but he made a deal with the DEA. First, he gave up members of a heroin trafficking ring based in Antwerp, Belgium, and then he went to Italy to help bust some Russian mobsters there. Operation Odessa was delighted to hear that Cannibal had grown up in the same town in the Ukraine as Tarzan, lived on the same street in Israel, and had renewed their relationship while living in Brighton Beach.

“We talked to Cannibal about helping us in Miami with our investigation of Porky’s,” Eaton recalled. “Cannibal said: ‘I will do anything to get out of this fucking trouble.’” Cannibal went to Miami and re-established contact with Tarzan, who was delighted to see his old friend. Using $72,000 provided by the DEA, Cannibal partnered with Tarzan in opening Babushka, a restaurant in North Miami that became a hangout for Russian emigres hungry for old country dishes such as beet borscht, chicken kiev and broiled beef tongue in garlic. One glowing 1995 restaurant review described the staff of Babushka as “Direct from Petrograd central casting…. a man/bear who resembles a general… a Ural-sized cook, a Rasputin look-a-like waiter.”

The Feds secured a court order to wiretap selected booths in Porky’s and Babushka, but it did not workout well. The establishments were too noisy for the Feds to pick up conversations clearly. So they decided to change their strategy and have one of their Russian-speaking agents go undercover and gain Tarzan’s confidence. The undercover agent’s name was Alex Yasevich and his cover would be that of a successful arms and heroin dealer from New York City.

One day in 1993 Yasevich walked into Babushka, where a seemingly startled Cannibal recognized him. Cannibal jumped up, excited, and they embraced. Curious about the encounter, Tarzan sauntered over to meet the stranger. Tarzan thought he recognized Yasevich from his old Brighton Beach neighborhood. Tarzan and undercover agent Yasevich sat down and began talking and tying one on Russian style.

Tarzan boasted about what great deal maker he was. Yasevich and the agents outside on the wire listened incredulously as Tarzan explained he was in the midst of doing his biggest deal ever: the purchase of a Russian diesel-powdered submarine and that the buyer was Pablo Escobar, the drug lord who, at the time, was in a bitter narco terrorist war with the Colombian government. The Federal agents did not know whether it was the booze talking, Tarzan trying to make himself look important or whether the deal was actually going down. But they had to take the talk seriously. If Colombian drug traffickers could get their hands on a sub, it would be a big setback in the War on Drugs. “It was crazy but we had to take the talk seriously,” Eaton recalled. “We knew the military in the Soviet Union was poorly paid and that it could happen. We had several meetings with the Department of Defense.”

Investigators learned that Tarzan’s contacts with the Colombians involved in the deal came through two men: Juan Almeida, the owner of a luxury car rental business and marina, and Fernando Birbragher, a Colombian who was Almeida’s mentor and a friend of Bill Seidle who had strong ties to the Cali Cartel. Birbragher was also a friend of Pablo Escobar, for whom Birbragher used to buy luxury boats and sports cars. In 1982 Birbragher admitted to laundering $54 million for the Cali Cartel. He was also suspected of laundering money for former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.

In 1989 Birbragher and Almeida purchased a local landmark in North Miami Beach known as the Fort Apache Marina, the property that legendary powerboat designer and racer Don Aronow had built. The acquisition placed Almeida at the top of the Miami’s young entrepreneurs list, but it also placed him on the Federal government’s radar screen.

Tarzan and Almeida became good friends and business partners. “Me and Juan enjoyed life,” Tarzan recalled for A & E. “I had a big yacht; he had a big yacht. He had a big helicopter. It was normal for us to fly to Cancun for lunch. We felt untouchable.”

The authorities suspected Almeida of being a drug dealer and believed he wanted to build a large-scale drug trafficking organization that used submarines. Tarzan and Almeida began traveling to Russia together in search of a submarine. Tarzan explained to A & E how easy it was to shop for a submarine. “I called my friend who was in (the Russian) government and I said to him: ‘let me ask you a stupid question. Is it possible to purchase a submarine?’ He replied: ‘With missiles or without missiles?’ When he asked me that question, I said to him: ‘Gee, thank you’ (laughs). Next week, Juan and I were on our way to Russia to buy a submarine.”

Russian mobsters in St. Petersburg introduced Tarzan and Almeida to high ranking Russian naval officers who took them to Kronstadt Naval Base, which was littered with left over Cold War military equipment. They were shown diesel submarines and taken inside some of them. Tarzan and Almeida finally agreed on a 90-foot Foxtrot Class Attack Submarine that could carry up to 40 tons of cocaine. “The Colombians wanted to retrofit the sub to resemble an oceanographic research vessel,” Handoga explained. “It would be based in Panama and deliver coke to another ship near San Diego.”

The DEA wanted to verify that Tarzan and Almeida had really gone to Russia to look for a submarine. At Porky’s, DEA agent Yasevich challenged Tarzan: “I don’t believe you really did it.” “Yes I did,” Tarzan said, and he pulled out a photo of himself taken at the submarine base. Tarzan offered the photo to Yasevich as a memento. Tarzan went as far as hiring a retired captain for $500 and crew of 17. But for unknown reasons, the deal floundered and was never consummated.

The DEA, however, believed that in mid 1993 Tarzan and Almeida succeeded in purchasing up to six M18 military helicopters for $1 million a piece. Tarzan boasted that he bought the helicopters for Pablo Escobar who wanted to use them to traffic cocaine. According to what Tarzan told the DEA, he accompanied the helicopters to Sheremetyevo Airport outside Moscow. The helicopters were going to be shipped to Bogota, Colombia, but just as the helicopters were about to be loaded on a plane, heavily armed men with automatic weapons surrounded Tarzan and the cargo. Tarzan had apparently screwed up protocol by not paying the mafioso who ran the airport for permission to buy the helicopters. The Russian mobster was pissed and Tarzan was in deep shit.

The mobster threatened to kill Tarzan, but Tarzan persuaded the hoodlum to allow him to make some calls so he could rectify the situation. Tarzan made a call to Anzor Kikalishvilli in Miami, asking the powerful Russian godfather for help in getting out of the jam. The godfather said he would make some calls.

Tarzan also called his friend, Almeida, who advised Tarzan to tell the Russian mobster who was detaining him that the helicopters were for the legendary and world famous Colombian gangster, Pablo Escobar. Tarzan did but the Russian mobster said Escobar would have to come personally to Moscow if he wanted the choppers. The mobster wanted in on a piece of the cocaine trade so he requested Escobar’s presence in order to cut a deal releasing Tarzan. The Russian mobster wanted to become Escobar’s local representative for narcotics distributions in and throughout the former Soviet Union. Almeida decided the only way to save his friend was to go himself to Moscow and pose as Escobar.

In his book Red Mafiya, Robert Friedman described the scene when Almeida arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow: “Almeida was welcomed by a motorcade of thick-necked men driving big black Mercedes cars. He was escorted like a head of state to a five star-hotel in the center of the city, and led into a dark-paneled room, where more thick-necked men sat around a long conference table. Almeida walked passed them to the head of the table where the “Don” presided. There was nervous silence. Suddenly the Russian seized him in a bear hug, and cried, “Pablo, Pablo Escobar. What took you so long? Let’s do some real shit, cocaine.” The day after a hard night on the Moscow town with the Russian mobster, Tarzan and Almeida were allowed to leave Russia with their helicopters.

But the Feds decided to close down the investigation. “Tarzan was beginning to suspect (DEA agent) Yasevich, so the operation was getting real dangerous for him,” Eaton recalled “We had to take him off the case and off the streets for a few years to be safe.”

Yesevich’s undercover work and hundreds of hours of wiretap conversations gave the DEA what it needed to make its case. On June 21, 1997, Tarzan was arrested in Miami after picking up his daughter from the William and Mariam Tauber Day Care Center in his sleek white 1996 Jaguar convertible. DEA agent Brent Eaton accompanied the Miami Dade Police officers that made the arrest. “When we were in the car, I told Tarzan that he was in real trouble,” Eaton recalled. “ You’re going to talk to us. If you decide to help yourself, you will be able to go home. If not, you’re going to jail.” Tarzan was charged with 37 separate Federal offenses ranging from racketeering to conspiracy to sell cocaine, heroin and a submarine, to sundry other charges

Facing a lifetime in jail, Tarzan made a deal with the U.S. government on the eve of his trial. In exchange for his testimony against Almeida, all the charges but the one for racketing would be dropped. In the end, Tarzan spent just 33 months behind bars. Upon his release in 1999, Tarzan was deported to Israel with $1,500 in his pocket.

Today, Tarzan is back in Russia, where, in a telephone conversation with the author, he said that he was doing well, driving a cab for a living and missing the United States, which he described as a wonderful country.

This is an excerpt from Ron Chepesiuk’s forthcoming book, Gangsters of Miami: True Tales of Mobsters, Gamblers, Hitmen, Con Men and Gang Bangers from the Magic City. Barricade Books www.barricadebooks.com will publish the book in November 2009. All rights reserved

## Ron Chepesiuk (dmonitor1@yahoo.com) is award winning freelance investigative journalist and documentary producer. He is a Fulbright scholar and a consultant to the History Channel's Gangland documentary series.

His true crime books include Drug Lords, Black Gangsters of Chicago and Gangsters of Harlem. His two forthcoming books include The Trafficantes: Godfathers from Tampa, Florida The Mafia, CIA and the JFK Assassination (an e-book in February 2010) and Sergeant Smack: The Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson (June 2110. Kingpin, and his Band of Brother (June, 2010).

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